Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have formed arguably the league's top linebacking duo for years now. Kuechly leads the NFL in tackles and interceptions by a linebacker since being drafted in 2012, and Davis is second among linebackers in interceptions over that same time frame and is one of just five active players with 1,000-plus tackles.
The duo, however, won't be dynamic together to start the season because Davis will serve a four-game suspension for violation of the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances. He's missed just three games since Kuechly was a rookie, and the Panthers lost two of those games.
1) How will the Panthers deal with Davis' absence?
Even before Davis' suspension, he said he expected to have a "reduced" role in 2018. Sure the 2005 first-round draft choice has a lot of tread on his tires, but Davis also had taken note of Shaq Thompson's wheels. Thompson cut into Davis' snaps a little more each of the last two years and has long been seen as TD's heir apparent; now the Panthers will get a feel for what life with Thompson/without Davis will be like a little sooner than expected.
Featuring Thompson the first quarter of the season could have long-term benefits for his game, and if the Panthers come out of the first four games in good shape, it may benefit Davis down the line as well. He could be a little fresher when the postseason rolls around.
View photos of the linebackers in action during the 2017 season.
2) How does the depth look without Davis?
The Panthers should be fine in the short term as long as Kuechly stays healthy, though he has missed 10 games over the past three seasons. Were he to miss time – or Thompson for that matter – during Davis' absence, it would be time for a little extra Mayo.
David Mayo, like Thompson drafted in 2015 (in the fifth round versus the first), spent last season learning to be an A.J. Klein-esque reserve capable of filling in at all three linebacker spots. That's good because he'll surely see snaps as an outside linebacker while Davis is out. His natural position is in the middle, and he started the one game Kuechly missed last season and was effective.
3) What linebackers will be left off the 53-man roster?
Reserve linebackers often are heavily involved in special teams, as is the case with Mayo. Ben Jacobs and Jared Norris have stuck around the last couple of years based largely on their special teams contributions, but Carolina committed a pair of draft picks to linebackers in the form of Jermaine Carter (fifth round) and Andre Smith (seventh round). Carter paced Maryland in tackles the last three seasons, while Smith was off to an explosive start this past season for North Carolina before the injury bug struck.
The draftees' initial hopes for inclusion on the roster will revolve around special teams – where Jacobs and Norris already excel. Something will have to give because the Panthers aren't going to carry eight linebackers.